No Free Chinese Takeaway but Chinese Takeover on the Menu
“Currently, the China-funded constructions in Pakistan cannot serve as a strong foothold for China, given the calamitous state of Pakistan’s security. Sri Lanka can be of great importance for China in the security strategic layout in the Indian Ocean. It will not only provide security assurances for nearby navigation channels, but will also promote the 21st Maritime Silk Road,” the Globe Times stated on the day the Lankan Prime Minister was to kick of his begging mission in Beijing where he was expected to ask the Chinese government to waive off certain loans and restructure some of the $8 billion Chinese debt.
This was the first time that Beijing had underscored its concerns and publicly made plain that its interest in Lanka went beyond mere trade gains. There was no mistaking the siren blare of the Chinese government authorised report when it stated the great importance of Lanka for China in ‘the security strategic layout in the Indian Ocean’. This was not a Chinese takeaway but a Chinese takeover. To further her strategic security aims in the region, China will provide assistance was the underlining message. With the Lankans’ clamour for alms rising in Tiananmen Square, China conveyed through its print media what it expected as its quid pro quo. They knew they had Lanka by the short and curlies.
The Chinese have memories as long their great wall. The pre presidential election anti China rhetoric soured relations once sweet. During the presidential election campaign the then opposition politicians successfully appealed to national sentiments by creating the vista of how the Rajapaksa government had sold the country lock, stock and barrel to the Chinese for a song in order to remain in power.
They pointed to the non functional Hambantota Port which had been built with Chinese aid and painted it as a future Chinese naval base to further China’s ‘String of Pearls’ policy in the Indian Ocean to gain regional hegemony. They pointed to the non operational Mattala Airport – again built with Chinese aid and situated only a few miles from the Hambantota harbour – and tarred it as a future Chinese Military Air base. They pointed to the exorbitant costs of the roads and highways built with Chinese aid and claimed the Rajapaksa regime members were lining their pockets with millions of dollars by inflating the project expenditure with Chinese collusion.
And then they directed the nation’s attention to the Colombo Port City, the US$ 1.4 billion project funded by the Chinese to claim 233 hectares of land from the sea and Mahinda Rajapaksa‘s arbitrary decision to give 88 hectares of it on a lease for 99 years and a further 20 hectares to be given on freehold to be owned by the Chinese in perpetuity. This, they pointed out most persuasively, was a sell out of Lanka’s sovereignty: The ultimate Rajapaksa treachery.
Two weeks before he became Prime Minister under the Maithripala government Ranil Wickremesinghe pledged to scrap the Port City Project, China’s biggest investment in Lanka. China was tainted with the Rajapaksa grime and any association with her was to be kept at arms’ length lest it soil the nation’s new suit of American bespoke tailoring. Lankan eyes which had squinted furtively at the West for five years now stared direct and ogle-eyed; and blinkered their vision to Eastern light.
Thus with Lanka beginning to conduct herself in a manner that made her once more the darling of the West and the pin up girl of India, the dalliance with China had to come to an end. Or it had to be ostensibly shown to the world that China had got the heave ho, had been given the boot.
But geopolitical reality also meant the superpower of the region China, with the second largest economy in the world and the world’s most populous state, could not be ignored at the drop of a hat. The mega projects begun under Chinese patronage and funded by Chinese capital could not be abandoned totally. The massive loans obtained by the government of Lanka could not be unilaterally revoked, liability denied and payment defaulted.
Though politics had demanded an initial anti Chinese sentiment to be expressed to pacify the troubled paranoia of India, the penurious state of the Treasury’s coffers, the depletion of the nation’s foreign currency levels and the plight of those who had worked at the now suspended Chinese mega projects which were politically exploited by the straggling opposition led by the people deposed former president in his campaign to return to power, could not be ignored. Economic and geopolitical reality demanded that genuflection had to be paid to China once more, whatever the political rhetoric may have been during the first few weeks of the post election euphoria.
But before the penitent tramps the hard ground to Beijing with begging bowl in hand to the door of a friend he once scorned, whose help he now seeks, the dried up soil of goodwill must first be watered, must first be softened and made ready for prostration to expurgate past sins. In February two top UNP ministers, both of them Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s closest confidantes, namely Development Strategies and International Trade Malik Minister Samarawickrema and Law and Order and Southern Region Development Minister Sagala Ratnayake, headed a senior delegation to China.
Minister Malik Samarawickrema returning from China last month announced some of the highpoints of his visit. He said that the Government has sought new loans from China to carry out various projects Government proposes and to set up a joint venture with China to develop the Mattala International Airport and the Chinese investors will have a say in the operation of the Mattala Airport operations. He also said the Government had sought financial co-operation to implement several of the projects in the pipeline and that projects have been outlined and China’s support had been sought on funding. Furthermore, joint ventures had been proposed between the two sides to develop the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport and that the Port City project will proceed with the original agreement to reclaim 233 hectares of land from the sea and work will soon resume.
All in all, China had been awarded everything she had asked for. But it appears that, while hiding her ire behind the bamboo curtain of oriental charm and discretion, she wants more, which, as the report in China’s Globe Times indicate, may possibly include demands that verge on infringing Lanka’s sovereignty.
The giant panda had borne every irksome slap but knowing the ways of the world with more than five thousand years of history behind it, had waited with legendary patience for beggared Lanka to come crawling to its feet to extract the maximum for her pauperised impotent state. Lanka has gone carrying with her naught but the weight of vilifications hurled against the regional superpower and now the contemptuous Chinaman is demanding his pound of flesh in return. That is the price Lanka must pay for lacking a far sighted, coherent and credible foreign policy.
As China’s President Xi Jinping said on Friday, “the Chinese government only considers Sri Lankan people and its policies and not personalities and political parties when assisting Sri Lanka and a third party cannot harm the friendship between Sri Lanka and China.” That’s a valuable lesson Lanka must learn that only the permanent interests of the nation must dictate foreign policy.
Unlike many nations in the world, Sri Lanka still hasn’t gained the political maturity to realise the value of having a long term foreign policy formulated in the best long term interests of the nation.
Instead the country’s foreign policy has often been decided on an ad hoc basis and has often depended on the passing whims of its political leaders in power; and has often been dictated to by what was most politically expedient at that relevant time.
After the end of the thirty year long terrorist war in 2009, Lanka’s foreign policy took a paradigm shift. And this was to move away from India’s sphere of influence and look to China for succour. This was done not because the country’s long term interest so demanded it but because the short term interest of Lankan President Rajapaksa whose political survival depended on it, so compelled it.
The abandonment of its traditional ally and closest neighbour India and the attendant hostility of the West such a drastic movement invoked, coupled with the West’s professed concern over the Lankan government’s nonchalant approach and arrogant attitude to human rights violations and its intransigence to display transparency and accept accountability to war crimes allegedly committed by its armed forces during the last days of the terrorist war soon led to Lanka’s isolation; and the subsequent unofficial branding of Lanka as an international pariah state exiled from the community of civilised nations.
The island nation, with its anti Indian, anti West stance, had no friend in the world except the region’s superpower aspirant China. The interests coincided and the resurrection of the historical Sino-Lanka relationship proved once again to be of mutual benefit to both parties. In other words, it was the ideal basis for a lasting friendship – in normal times.
But these were not normal times; and while China could afford to indulge it and gain a foothold in the strategically placed Indian Ocean island which had been a major hub and port of call in the Silk Route hundreds of years ago, Lanka soon found the crippling measures taken by the rest of the unfriendly world threatening her very economic survival.
True, China had the pockets deep enough to finance mega projects in Lanka and the ability to extend millions of dollars in credit lines. She had a permanent seat in the United Nation’s Security Council and thus could veto any vote to place worldwide economic embargoes against Lanka.
But though the Yuan kept the Lankan economy afloat and built her roads and created the impression of vast development taking place in Lanka to impress the citizenry and keep the Rajapaksa regime politically stable; though China’s veto vote in the UN enabled the Rajapaksa regime to drag their feet when it came to answering the international community’s demand for human rights accountability in the confidence that the UN could not do their worst without Chinese acquiescence; yet the fact remained that the West and India were Lanka’s biggest customers and could individually impose their own trade sanctions with crippling effect.
China’s role, which had propped up the Rajapaksa regime and cocooned it from western vengeance, also in the end contributed to the downfall of Mahinda Rajapaksa from his Chinese built pedestal of presidential existence. His ousting by the Lankan electorate earned for the nation the goodwill of the international community. America, which had publicly announced she wished to see a regime change in Lanka, applauded and cheered Lanka’s return to democracy. India rejoiced and hailed the people of Lankan for their wise decision and welcomed the nation back into the familiar family fold.
One year later a new foreign policy is evolving not at its natural Foreign Ministry dwelling but at the Prime Minister’s office to where it had been transferred. In January this year the Prime Minister appointed a new body under his authority called the Global Affairs Committee headed by Charitha Ratwatte, a former Treasury Secretary and currently a senior Advisor to the Prime Minister, to oversee the working of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to give directions on foreign policy and all related matters.
It appears to have recognised that though the West had been profuse in its praise for Lanka and had liberally hailed the new playing field of politics, cheered the return to democracy, appreciated the willingness to entertain a war crimes probe even with international judges, admired the independence of the judiciary, valued the upholding of human rights, it had remained tight fisted and had stinted when it came to meaningfully assisting Lanka in terms of dollars and euros. There concern for Lanka had come to reflect the acronym of their US-European North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. NATO: No Aid Talk Only.
Thus in these last few months the realisation has dawned in the echelons of power that it is time to do business with China again. That merely to satisfy Western aspirations that Lanka cannot look askance at the regional superpower. That to align with the West totally would be to commit the same fundamental mistake the previous regime made by aligning exclusively with China. The time has come,perhaps, to return to the ideals of non-alignment, the self same principles which moved Lanka to become one of the original members of the Non Aligned Movement in 1961, and to woo China with gusto.
Today the wheel seems to have turned full circle and China seems to be on track with her famous virtue of patience justly and amply rewarded. Though historically the Chinese have been noted to think in terms of centuries, even they must agree in wonderment that with Lanka, what a world of difference a year makes.
The Lankan Government appears to have finally come to terms that even at the risk of antagonising India, the dominant position of China as an emerging world power cannot be ignored or trifled with. It would have taken into cognizance that she is a superpower in the region, the most populous state with nearly 1.4 billion people; the second largest country by land area; the world’s largest exporter and the largest importer; the second largest economy in the world; a permanent member of the United Nation’s Security Council with the all important veto vote; and currently a member of the UN Human Rights Commission till the end of this year.
But this is not done at the cost of India’s friendship. The same strategy of accommodation is being followed when it comes to the new trade agreement that India is pushing for Lanka to sign. Called the Lanka Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA), the Government’s plans to sign it have met stiff opposition from the public, including lawyers and doctors, who fear loss of employment with an Indian influx of manpower. But the Prime Minister has shown that he is prepared to weather the local storm and this has won for him the goodwill of the Indian Government and perhaps allowed him an opportunity to persuade India that in return the Lankan Government’s decision to allow the Port City Project and other Chinese projects should be viewed with understanding and not opposed.
What emerges from recent political and diplomatic activity accompanied as it is by backchannel discussions and understandings reached, is that Lanka’s evolving foreign policy now looks set to charter a course that seeks to balance Indian and Chinese interests with greater understanding and with greater accommodation, expecting the same in return from the countries concerned to help Lanka emerge from the ashes of a thirty year war and a ten year misrule riddled with unprecedented corruption. As China’s grand progenitor of culture the great Sage Confucius say:” They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”
This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka